Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious Monk is undoubtedly one of the most important – and controversial – figures in the history of jazz. Although he was a trailblazer who pioneered a uniquely percussive approach to the piano and developed a peculiar musical language that some found difficult to understand, his greatest achievement was writing over 70 memorable songs, several of which became jazz standards.
Monk initially rose to fame alongside alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the vanguard of the bebop movement in New York during the mid 1940s. In the main, bebop was a high-octane music driven by Parker and Gillespie’s virtuosic athleticism but Monk, who was the eldest of bop’s holy trinity, created his own distinctive musical universe that was defined by quirky chromatic choruses, disquieting dissonant notes, and, on the whole, much slower tempi. Given the radical yet highly stylized characteristics of his music – which he blueprinted on his very first recordings for the Blue Note label in 1947 – Monk met with more opposition from the jazz establishment than Parker and Gillespie. “He can’t play. He has two left hands,” was how one New York record store owner responded to Monk’s piano playing. Blue Note, however, hailed their protégé as a genius and helped garner media attention by promoting him as a mysterious maverick.
Although the label’s attempts to break Monk into the jazz mainstream failed, as the 50s progressed, fruitful stints at the Prestige and Riverside labels established the pianist as one of modern jazz’s major figures; and in 1962, when Monk signed to the major label, Columbia Records, he enjoyed the biggest exposure of his career.
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For those listening to Monk for the first time, finding a convenient entry point into his music can pose a challenge; especially in view of the fact that during his 24-year recording career he made multiple studio recordings of most of his signature compositions. But the 20 selections highlighted below offer the perfect introduction to a genius of modern music.
Blue Note Foundations
(Round Midnight; Ruby, My Dear; Well, You Needn’t; Epistrophy; Criss Cross; Straight, No Chaser)
Thelonious Monk spent five years with Blue Note (1947-1952) and though it was a creatively fertile period that yielded fifteen 78 rpm singles and two LPs, none of his recordings sold well. But Alfred Lion’s label was where Monk laid the foundations for his singular style and recorded many of his most important songs; including arguably his greatest and most popular creation, “Round Midnight,” a slow, evocative nocturne distinguished by a smoky uncoiling melody. Monk first recorded the song with a sextet in 1947 as “‘Round About Midnight” and since then, it has been covered by everyone from Miles Davis in the 50s to Amy Winehouse in the 2000s. It even has the distinction of being the most recorded jazz composition of all time and had a movie named after it; director Bernard Tavernier’s 1986 film about an American jazz musician (played by Dexter Gordon) living in Europe.
“Round Midnight” showed that Monk was an exceptional ballad writer but it wasn’t a one-off, as the exquisite “Ruby, My Dear,” clearly demonstrated. Monk’s 1947 trio version opens with a descending whole tone cascade; a signature embellishment in the pianist’s box of musical tricks.
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Monk could also produce songs that swung with a compulsive foot-tapping groove. The 1947 recording of “Well, You Needn’t” underlines his ethos of making a song swing joyfully while its infectious melodic hook shows that despite his reputation as an avant-garde iconoclast, Monk could write accessible tunes.
Another early Monk masterpiece, “Epistrophy,” co-written with bebop drummer, Kenny Clarke, was first recorded in 1948 with a band featuring future Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson and soon became a go-to song in Monk’s canon.
“Criss Cross” from 1951, also swung hard, due to drummer Art Blakey’s propulsive groove; the song highlighted Monk’s penchant for angular melodies and seasoning his harmonies with discordant notes. First recorded the same year, “Straight, No Chaser” – another quintessential Monk number that the pianist frequently revisited – showed how an orthodox 12-bar blues could be radicalized with mesmerizing chromatic melodies.
Criss Cross (Remastered 1998)
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Blossoming At Prestige And Riverside
(Blue Monk; Nutty; Pannonica; Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are; Trinkle Tinkle; Rhythm-A-Ning)
Like “Straight No Chaser,” “Blue Monk” – first recorded on the 1954 Prestige LP Thelonious Monk Trio – dazzled with its complex prismatic architecture but was built on a relatively simple 12-bar blues framework. It was second only to “Round Midnight” in terms of the number of versions Monk recorded.
Another popular tune in Monk’s repertoire was the even catchier “Nutty,” initially cut in 1954 with a trio for the Prestige album, Thelonious Monk Plays. Its piano solo, which adheres closely to the song’s melodic theme, reveals how Monk was different from technically dazzling bebop pianists like Bud Powell; instead of producing a torrent of liquid piano runs, his improvisation is highly fragmented, with long pauses separating percussive right-hand melodies from chunky chordal iterations of the theme.
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In 1955, Monk joined producer Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside label to begin the most satisfying phase of his career. Arguably the highpoint of his time there was the 1956 album, Brilliant Corners, featuring saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Ernie Henry, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach. The record saw the premiere of Monk’s beautiful ballad “Pannonica”; Monk played celeste as well as piano on a dreamy tune inspired by his friend and patron, the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswater. She was also the muse behind another lovely slow ballad on the album; “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are” (aka “Bolivar Blues”), whose title referenced Manhattan’s Bolivar Hotel, Nica’s home at the time.
A year later, in 1957, sax giant, John Coltrane, joined Monk’s group for a short period; they only made one studio album together (Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane) but as the quirky, intricate “Trinkle Tinkle” shows, the two jazz giants created musical alchemy when they combined their formidable talents.
Monk’s penchant for technically-gifted saxophonists resulted in the highly regarded tenor titan, Johnny Griffin, joining his quartet in 1958. They were captured live at the Five Spot Café in New York on two compilation albums, Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. Thelonious in Action features an incendiary version of Monk’s classic “Rhythm-A-Ning,” a driving tune the pianist first recorded in the studio in 1957 with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers.
Thelonious Monk’s Solo Monk Piano Excursions
(April In Paris; Just a Gigolo; Lulu’s Back In Town; Sophisticated Lady)
Thelonious Monk cut four albums of unaccompanied piano during his career, beginning in 1954 with Piano Solo, recorded in Paris as a one-off project for a French company. But one of his most famous solo forays was Thelonious Himself, recorded three years later, which blended self-penned material with jazz standards. Monk’s version of the ballad “April In Paris” from that album is particularly arresting; the way he serrated the melody and re-harmonized it revealed how he applied his signature musical characteristics to someone else’s creation. Noteworthy, too, is his 1963 solo piano rendering of the popular 1920s Austrian tango, “Just A Gigolo,” a song that jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum reworked first, but which Monk completely transforms to reflect his own musical psyche.
April In Paris by Thelonious Monk from 'Thelonious Himself'
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There were other lone piano recordings where Monk clearly indicated how he fused the highly rhythmic stride-style popularized by Harlem musicians like James P. Johnson in the 1920s with an altogether more modern conception of melody, harmony, and meter; a good example is provided by the jaunty piano intro to his 1964 rendition of the 1930s tune, “Lulu’s Back In Town,” which is peppered with grating yet almost humorous harmonic clashes.
Although Monk is one of the greatest composers in the history of jazz, as the above two songs reveal, he was also an adept interpreter of jazz standards. He recorded two albums devoted to other writers’ songs; one of them, recorded in 1955, paid homage to the music of Duke Ellington and included a typical Monk-esque remodelling of the evergreen ballad “Sophisticated Lady.”
Wider Fame In The 60s
(Evidence; Bye-Ya; Green Chimneys; Ugly Beauty)
Thelonious Monk’s signing to Columbia Records in 1962, where he joined a roster including jazz heavyweights Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington, meant that his music could reach more people than ever before. He was able to travel the world and perform on its greatest stages, and in 1964, proof that Monk was no longer an underground figure was confirmed when his portrait graced the front cover of the influential US magazine, Time.
But the 60s was a period of consolidation for the pianist/composer, who mainly offered refreshed versions of older songs; some were revived in a large ensemble context, like the thrilling big band retoolings of the uptempo numbers, “Evidence” and “Bye-Ya,” both recorded on tour in 1963. Of the new songs Monk debuted in the 60s, “Green Chimneys,” an upbeat swinger, and “Ugly Beauty,” a mournful but elegant waltz, showed that the composer could still write compelling music. Even so, as the 60s became the 70s, his creative powers rapidly declined with the progression of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
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Thelonious Monk died in February 1982, 11 years after his final studio recording, but since then, his stock has risen exponentially; in 1993 he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and two years later, his face appeared on a US postage stamp. More accolades followed; the Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz was founded in Los Angeles in 1986 and exactly two decades later, Monk was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. His name has also been kept in the public eye with a plethora of reissues, retrospectives, tribute albums, and unreleased live recordings; the latter epitomized by 2020’s critically acclaimed Palo Alto, capturing Monk’s band playing at a high school in 1968.
With their angular melodies and harmonic surprises, these Thelonious Monk pieces capture the idiosyncratic essence of their creator, a musical genius who was often misunderstood in his lifetime. Though Monk recorded most of those selections multiple times, he never played them the same way twice; a fact that’s not only indicative of jazz’s improvisational nature but also reflects the pianist’s forthright individualism, whose sartorial panache and penchant for natty headgear was almost as famous as his groundbreaking music.
If you feel we’ve missed one of the best Thelonious Monk pieces, let us know in the comments section below.
But Alfred Lion's label was where Monk laid the foundations for his singular style and recorded many of his most important songs; including arguably his greatest and most popular creation, “Round Midnight,” a slow, evocative nocturne distinguished by a smoky uncoiling melody.What is the best selling jazz single of all time? ›
"Take Five" is a jazz standard composed by Paul Desmond. It was first recorded in 1959 and is the third track on Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two years later it became a sleeper hit and the biggest-selling jazz single ever.Which style of jazz is Thelonious Monk most associated with? ›
Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American composer and jazz pianist who contributed to the cool jazz, hard bop, and bebop styles of music.What impact did Thelonius Monk have on jazz? ›
Monk's music was known for its humorous, almost playful, quality. He was also one of the most prolific composers in the history of jazz. Many of his compositions, which were generally written in the 12-bar blues or the 32-bar ballad form, became jazz standards.What is the title of Thelonious Monk's most well known composition? ›
"'Round Midnight" is Monk's most recorded tune, and the world's most recorded standard by a jazz musician. The tune was first recorded on August 22, 1944, by Cootie Williams, after his pianist and Monk's good friend, Bud Powell, persuaded Williams to record the tune.What is the meaning of the word thelonious? ›
Latinized variation of German Tillman, “one who plows the earth”Who is the most famous jazz player of all time? ›
He was arguably the first major jazz star, and – with his rhythmically sophisticated, operatic style – remains the greatest jazz musician of all time according to many.
In his autobiography, Duke Ellington declared, "Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity."Who is the best smooth jazz songs ever? ›
- George Benson – Affirmation. ...
- Bob James – Since I Fell For You. ...
- Lonnie Liston Smith – Rainbows Of Love. ...
- Incognito – Pieces Of A Dream. ...
- Sade – Your Love Is King. ...
- Chris Botti – Good Morning Heartache (feat. ...
- Norman Brown – After The Storm. ...
- Grover Washington Jr.
Today, Monk is by far the most covered jazz composer. His catalog—some 60 to 70 songs, many of them familiar to even moderately serious jazz fans—forms the spine of the contemporary repertoire. That has also made him a major influence on every composer working in jazz and improvised music.
- trad, New Orleans or Dixieland jazz - style originating from music played in New Orleans in the early 20th Century.
- bebop - style from the 1940s featuring fast tempo , complex harmonies and lots of improvisation.
- cool jazz - a more laid back style from the late 1940s.
It is now time to turn attention to the elements of Jazz. The key elements of Jazz include: blues, syncopation, swing and creative freedom. Improvisation in music is not new, as there are traditions of improvisation in India, Africa, and Asia.What are the 3 main influences that resulted into jazz? ›
Its roots include many Afro-American folk music traditions, such as spirituals, work songs, and blues. It also borrowed from 19th century band music and the ragtime style of piano playing.Why did people think jazz was evil? ›
Some urban middle-class African Americans perceived jazz as "devil's music", and believed the improvised rhythms and sounds were promoting promiscuity.Who was the first jazz great? ›
Jelly Roll Morton became recognized as the first great jazz composer.Is Thelonious Monk one of the greatest jazz composers? ›
Thelonious Monk ranks as one of the greatest and most influential of all jazz musicians whose compositions remain amongst the most covered in the entire jazz repertoire, second only perhaps to Duke Ellington.Who is the loneliest monk? ›
|The Loneliest Monk|
|Members||Michelle Morales Miles Benjamin|
Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was a master of the Lied. He composed more than 900 Lieder, many of which had their premieres at musical home gatherings which Schubert's friends delightfully called Schubertiades.Does Lukas mean light? ›
The name Lucas is from the Greek name Loukas. Interestingly, Lucas also means "man from Lucania," a historical region of southern Italy the name of which is thought to mean white or light. This makes sense since Lucas means "bringer of light" in Latin.What is a cool Latin name? ›
Latin names in the US Top 100 for girls include Ava, Clara, Lillian, Olivia, and Stella. For boys, Latin names in the US Top 100 include Dominic, Lucas, Julian, Roman, and Sebastian. In Rome, popular names include Cecilia, Viola, Christian, and Santiago.
Amari' is from African-Yoruba origins and means 'strength', and is used chiefly in the English language.Who is the best alto sax player of all time? ›
Charlie Parker is often cited as the greatest saxophone player in history. Parker, nicknamed Yardbird, or Bird for short, elevated jazz from entertaining dance music to the highest form of spontaneous artistic expression.Who was considered the queen of jazz? ›
Legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) became known as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella” for her singular tone. Ella Fitzgerald's voice featured prominently on the 1940s musical soundtrack. She was one of the superstars of the era and an all-time musical great.Who is the father of jazz? ›
Louis Armstrong was born in a poor section of New Orleans known as “the Battlefield” on August 4, 1901. By the time of his death in 1971, the man known around the world as Satchmo was widely recognized as a founding father of jazz—a uniquely American art form.Who is the God Father of Jazz? ›
Trumpet player and band-leader Buddy Bolden is considered by many to be the godfather of jazz after he mastered the art of improvisation around the turn of the century. Louis Armstrong said Buddy was "a one-man genius ahead of 'em all" and vocalist Nina Simone even wrote a song about him.What is the most beautiful jazz song? ›
- Lush Life. Lush Life was written by Billy Strayhorn between 1933 and 1936: Strayhorn was, remarkably, still a teenager when he began its composition. ...
- Infant Eyes. ...
- Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. ...
- Stardust. ...
- Body and Soul. ...
- Naima. ...
- Blue In Green. ...
- Embraceable You.
1: Art Tatum (1909-1956)
At the pinnacle of our list of the 50 best jazz pianists of all time is the man regarded as a keyboard deity.
How Kenny G, King Of Smooth Jazz, Created Busch Light's Super Bowl Serenade.What is the number 1 jazz song? ›
|1.||Take Five||Dave Brubeck|
|2.||So What||Miles Davis|
|3.||Take The A Train||Duke Ellington|
|4.||Round Midnight||Thelonious Monk|
|Born||May 26, 1926 Alton, Illinois, U.S.|
|Died||September 28, 1991 (aged 65) Santa Monica, California, U.S.|
|Occupation(s)||Musician bandleader composer|
1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue (1959) is the top jazz album on most 'best-of' lists and is cited as jazz's biggest-seller.What is the oldest style of jazz? ›
The earliest forms of jazz came to be in the late 1800s/very early 1900s. The style was known as “ragtime” or “playing hot” and really took off in New Orleans.What jazz style is most popular? ›
Swing music & big band Jazz
From the early 1930s until the late 1940s big band swing was the most popular style of music in the USA, and many of the most important bandleaders were huge mainstream stars.
Bebop or bop is a style of jazz characterized by a fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure and occasional references to the melody.What are jazz chords called? ›
Analytic practice in Jazz recognizes four basic chord types, plus diminished seventh chords. The four basic chord types are major, minor, minor-major, and dominant. When written in a jazz chart, these chords may have alterations specified in parentheses after the chord symbol.Why is jazz so complex? ›
As far as musics go, jazz is relatively complex; there are many musical, technical, intellectual, and emotional elements happening simultaneously (more on this later). Jazz makes far more demands on the listener than do most popular styles which are fundamentally simpler than jazz, requiring less from the listener.What are common keys for jazz? ›
F, Bb, Eb and Ab are all common keys in jazz since they work well for brass instrument. This guide will include Bebop Scales, Modal Scales and Jazz Minor scales. Useful scales: Bebop Scales – great for soloing or improvising in jazz.Who was one of the greatest of all jazz improvisers? ›
Coltrane's unmatched virtuosity has carved him a place as one of most sophisticated jazz improvisers to date. Coltrane's groundbreaking improvisations are studied intensely by many jazz aspirants.
Abstract. This author's perspective on jazz dance is centered on four core principles derived from an African aesthetic. These principles are: 1) rhythmicity, 2) formidable relationship with the music, 3) improvisation, and 4) dynamic play.Who had the biggest impact on jazz? ›
It's safe to say that Louis Armstrong is hands down one of the most important musicians in jazz history. Nicknamed “Satchmo” or “Pops”, Louis is one of the most well known jazz musicians in the world and is responsible for bringing jazz to the spotlight, inspiring many of his contemporaries and musicians to follow.
By the end of the 1920s, at least 60 communities across the nation enact laws prohibiting jazz in public dance halls. The introduction of Prohibition in 1920 brings jazz into gangster-run nightclubs, the venues that serve alcohol and hire black musicians.Are there any white jazz musicians? ›
In jazz, many white jazz musicians have collaborated with black jazz legends: Count Basie and Benny Goodman, Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans.Why did jazz lose its popularity? ›
As the music industry became big business, jazz struggled to compete. Jazz radio stations have all but disappeared from the airwaves. And with the advent of MTV as a major driver in music trends, jazz became a niche genre.Which American city is considered to be the birthplace of jazz? ›
Jazz Origins in New Orleans.What were the 3 biggest names of the jazz age? ›
Some of the biggest names of jazz are Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, "Jelly Roll" Morton, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Louise Brooks, Henry "Red" Allen Jr., Peter Bocage, Buddy Bolden, Hoagy Carmichael, Warren Dodds, Tommy Dorsey, Bunk Johnson, Clarence Williams, Josephine Baker, Edward Kennedy ...Who was the king of the Jazz Age? ›
Scott Fitzgerald both literally and symbolically defined an age in American history. While Twain coined “The Gilded Age” to describe late 19th-century America, Fitzgerald popularized “The Jazz Age” for the 1920s.What is Thelonious Monk famous for? ›
Today, Monk is by far the most covered jazz composer. His catalog—some 60 to 70 songs, many of them familiar to even moderately serious jazz fans—forms the spine of the contemporary repertoire. That has also made him a major influence on every composer working in jazz and improvised music.What was the Monk known for? ›
monk, man who separates himself from society and lives either alone (a hermit or anchorite) or in an organized community in order to devote himself full time to religious life.What jazz musicians had mental illness? ›
Pianist Bud Powell had several admissions to psychiatric hospitals and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, while Davis suffered paranoid delusions and hallucinations due to a substance-induced psychotic disorder.Why did Thelonious Monk lose his cabaret card? ›
For many performers, the revocation of their cabaret cards resulted in the loss of their livelihood. Those of Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Elmo Hope, Billy Higgins and Billie Holiday were suspended because of drug charges, Lenny Bruce's for his reputed obscenity.
|Education||Pasteur Institute (PhD molecular genetics)|
|Occupation||Buddhist monk writer translator photographer|
|Teacher||Kangyur Rinpoche Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche|
Notable as the only time Thelonious Monk made a studio recording with Davis—the two men did not get on well, as Davis felt Monk ought to be "laying out" (refraining from playing) during the trumpeter's solos—this session also resulted in the title track to Bags' Groove.Who is the second most recorded jazz composer? ›
He is the second most recorded composer in jazz , after Duke Ellington, and his angular tunes have inspired generations of musicians and been the subject of dozens of Monk-themed albums.
The feminine form of a monk is 'Nun'.What are the 4 types of monks? ›
As you will recall, Benedict lists the four kinds of monks as coenobites, anchorites/hermits, sarabaites, and gyrovagues. He gets this from the Rule of the Master, and the Master (not a Timelord) gets it from Cassian about a century before.Why do monks wear orange? ›
Hindu and Buddhist monks wear orange robes, and in Hinduism, orange represents fire and therefore purity; impurities are burned in fire.What drugs did jazz musicians do? ›
Jazz clubs were the performance platform and alcohol was a common addiction among jazz musicians (1,2). Cannabis, and later, intravenous heroin, became common drugs in the jazz community.What does jazz music do to the brain? ›
Improves Cognitive Health, Memory, and Mood
The study at Johns Hopkins Medicine also found that listening to jazz can enhance memory recall, moods, clarity of mind, and even linguistic skills. This makes jazz exposure a perfect form of music therapy for those in a memory care community.
|Website||Wesley Willis on Alternative Tentacles|
|The Loneliest Monk|
|Members||Michelle Morales Miles Benjamin|
While no account exists of Monk using heroin (and certainly not intravenously), he was unfortunately fond of alcohol and taking “whatever was around.” This created problems, not least on his perilous journeys outside New York, when he accepted hallucinogens from people he hardly knew.Who killed the butcher in Monk? ›
The next day, Monk is in police headquarters listening to Leyla rehash the murder. According to Leyla, when she got into the cab, she recognized the driver as the Butcher of Zemenia, and she reacted by stabbing him to death with her hatpin.